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Jeremiah thunders to the people of Judah:
"Therefore G-d says: 'Since you have not obeyed me and proclaimed freedom (from slavery) for all you brothers and fellow men… I will deliver (the officials of Judah) into the hands of their enemies who seek their lives… their carcasses will be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth… I will make the cities of Judah desolate without inhabitants.'" (Jer. 34:17-22)
The setting of the Haftara is in Judea, in the years before the final Babylonian Exile.
The prophet Jeremiah lived during the end of the seventh and beginning of the sixth centuries BCE, and he lived to see the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. He was active during the reigns of four different kings of Judah: Josiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah - to all of whom he brought messages from G-d.
From the text of his book, he appears to have had only one task, to which he applied himself single-mindedly. That was to warn the people that Judah would be destroyed unless the Jews repented.
Jeremiah was neither allowed to marry (Jer. 16:1-2), nor to commiserate with his people. His conveyance of the Word of G-d to the Jews did not win him popularity, and he was reviled, beaten, and imprisoned. He was threatened with death more than once, and his would-be assassins almost succeeded.
The Haftara takes place where the Jews of Judah were under King Zedekiah - in the final years before the Destruction of the First Temple. They were at the mercy of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon - when it was the super-power of the Middle East. He had already conquered Judea, and he was ready to destroy it, taking away the little liberty it had left.
Zedekiah belatedly did 'what was right in the eyes of G-d' (34:15). He recognized the obligation he and his nobles had to the less fortunate of his own people - that a Hebrew slave only serves for a fixed period and then legally gets his freedom (as in Ex. 21:2, and Lev. 25:10). The slaves were freed, with pomp and ceremony (34:18). Soon afterwards, however, they were forcibly repossessed, and subject to new servitude. G-d's responded by revealing the future of the nation of Judah, and specifically its king and its leaders:
"Therefore G-d says: 'Since you have not obeyed me and proclaimed freedom (from slavery) for all you brothers and fellow men… I will indeed proclaim freedom for you - to be free to [be violated by] the forces of the sword, the plague, and the famine… making you into an object of pitiful contempt… I will deliver [the officials of Judah] into the hands of their enemies who seek their lives… their carcasses will be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth… I will make the cities of Judah desolate without inhabitants.'" (Jer. 34:17-22)
In freeing the slaves, Zedekiah appeared to be reinstating the Torah law as an act of kindness, an act of social justice. However, a less charitable interpretation would suggest that he might well have been making use of Torah law for his own ends. At that time, the people of Judea were under surrounded by the Babylonian army, so they would have been unlikely to be working in the open fields. Slaves would have been of limited use, and may well have been put to better purpose as soldiers in Zedekiah's army. However, soon afterwards (see 37:5) the temporary alliance between Judea and Egypt saw the Egyptian army working towards Jerusalem, very briefly relieving the pressure of the Babylonian army. Farming would have revived, making slavery economically useful once more.
Jeremiah survived the Babylonian onslaught prophesized in the Haftara, only living to witness the Temple destroyed, the wealthier classes exiled to Babylon, and he himself dragged over the border to Egypt, where he remained until his death.
The Jews in Egypt - of whom by then Jeremiah was one - had been reassured by G-d through His Prophet Jeremiah that they would eventually be saved - as mentioned in the last two verses of the Haftara. "As certainly as I have established My covenant with day and night - he laws of heaven and earth - so I will not reject the children of Jacob and My servant David… I will return (the people) from exile and have mercy on them." (Jer. 33:25-26) As he brings later on in his book: 'Fear not, My servant Jacob; do not be afraid… although I will punish you as you deserve, I will not utterly destroy you.' (46:27-37). We do not know what happened to the Jewish refugees in Egypt - we assume that they and Jeremiah died there, as we have no record of them returning to Judah. It seems most likely that they settled there - some founding Jewish colonies as on Elephantine Island (near Aswam), and possibly traveling further south - making converts in Ethiopia.
The essence of the Haftara relates Jeremiah's thunder towards the people-owning classes who restored their newly liberated Hebew slaves to servitude:
"Therefore G-d says: 'Since you have not obeyed me and proclaimed freedom (from slavery) for all you brothers and fellow men… did not fulfil the terms of the covenant which they made with Me… I will deliver (the officials of Judah) into the hands of their enemies who seek their lives… their carcasses will be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth… I will make the cities of Judah desolate without inhabitants.'" (Jer. 34:17-22)
Yet the Haftara concludes with two verses communicating a different Divine message - from the previous chapter, where Jeremiah is imprisoned in the court of the king's guard (32:2):
"As certainly as I have established My covenant with day and night - he laws of heaven and earth - so I will not reject the children of Jacob and My servant David… I will return (the people) from exile and have mercy on them." (Jer. 33:25-26)
Why is tone of the Haftara changed in the last two verses? What message does the arrangement of the Haftara in the reverse order (see above) convey?
Simply, it is more pleasant for the Haftara to finish on a positive note (compare with the Haftarot of Yitro and Massei). The order is reversed as the entire Book of Jeremiah contains relatively few words of comfort. In addition, these verses referring to G-d's eternal covenant never to completely reject Israel stand in contrast to Judah's broken covenant to free the slaves. However, the Talmud (Megilla 14a and Rashi ad loc) characterizes the prophecies recorded in the Tenach as not just applying to the time they were said, but to future generations - providing moral guidance and Halachic information. In that spirit: a wider answer, relevant to today.
The Talmud, based on Scriptural exegesis, teaches that a slave is the legal property of his master and 'what a slave acquires goes to his master' (Pesachim 88b) - he has no rights to personal property. He is not free to make his own decisions and pursue what is most beneficial for himself. He has to serve the interests of someone else - be it to his own benefit or not.
Even today everybody serves. Most of the world's population is still struggling for existence, but the post-industrialized society of the Developed World is demanding spiraling prices to keep up. These lie in the shifting sands of the changing natural environment, financial markets, rapid technological change, and increasingly complex global politics. In the process, as Jonathan Sacks puts it (Sacks J: The Dignity of Difference. 2003 Edition, pp.75-76) 'lives become lifestyles, commitments become experiments… careers turn into contracts, and life ceases to have the character of a narrative, and becomes a series of episodes with no connecting thread'. This leads to the 'existential burnout' of 'flying from hotel to hotel, constantly in touch by mobile phone and handheld computer, watching financial markets around the world, always at risk of corporate downsizing, and less and less in touch with whose lives her decisions will affect.' He or she will be guided by the brutal philosophy of the American bumper sticker that reads: 'The guy with the most toys when he dies wins.'
So freedom today is being at liberty to make life worth living, as it was then. As Sacks writes:
'The deepest insight I received into what makes a life worth living was not at university, but when I began my career as a Rabbi, and had, for the first time, to officiate at funerals. They were distressing moments, trying to comfort a family in the midst of grief… In my address I had to paint a portrait of the deceased whom I might not have known personally, so I would talk first to the family and friends to try to understand what he or she meant to them. Almost always they spoke of similar things. The person who had died had been a supportive marriage partner, a caring parent. He or she had been a loyal friend ready to help when help was needed. No one ever mentioned what they earned or bought, what care they drove, where they spent their holidays. The people most mourned were not the most rich or successful. They were people who enhanced the lives of others… They gave time as well as money to voluntary causes. They were part of a community, living its values, sharing its griefs and celebrations. As this pattern repeated tiself time and again, I realized that I was learning about more than the deceased. I was being educated into what makes a life well lived.' (Sacks J: The Dignity of Difference. 2003 Edition, p.80)
Thus mindless pursuit of material gains well beyond our own needs may well bring '…their carcasses will be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth…' in the following way. Behind the veneer of superficial politeness, our day to day lives will be indeed governed by impersonal corporate decisions which take away our individuality and our capacity to serve G-d and Man in the most fulfilling way, as describe above… Individuals feel owned by shifting forces beyond their control - like the slave whose master at will may sell him to another person. One day he brings home a six figure income, the next, he finds himself redundant as the high-tech contract is given to a business in another country with new and more favorable tax laws, bringing his own employer down with him.
So the Haftara concludes with two verses communicating a different Divine message for the Messianic Age
"I will return (the people) from exile and have mercy on them." (Jer. 33:25-26) In Messianic times, people will be freed from slavery of both the ancient and modern eras, and be given the will and means to live their lives to their ultimate fulfillment…
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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